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Living one day at a time… for 20 years and counting

BUSINESS
By | December 2nd 2009

By George Orido

Joe Muriuki smiles often, although he often lapses into deep thought about life, and the circumstances that brought him to public limelight.

Indeed, he is a public figure in the literal sense of the word, vaguely family yet somewhat mysteriously, the latter attribute stemming from the health condition that few understand, and even fewer can comprehend his longevity, having tested positive for HIV two decades ago.

And since that bleak September morning, when he went for a test because of profuse night sweating and unprecedented malaise, his world was in utter turmoil.

"The most important drive is my positive attitude," says Joe Muriuki, who became the face of Aids in Kenya after going public about his condition 20 years ago. [PHOTO: GEORGE ORIDO /COURTSEY]

"I moved to the village to die," Muriuki told The Standard last year. "I thought I had just a few weeks to live."

But the act of going public about his condition, and the attendant stigma that persisted then, meant he could barely grieve in private.

He was only 30, working as junior clerk with the City Council and his wife heavy with child.

"I was told I would live for at least a month. But while listening to the BBC, I heard the presenter talk about a Tanzanian who had lived with Aids for three years. That’s when I realised I could live longer."

Humanising

As Kenya marks 25 years since the first HIV infection was first confirmed in 1984, Muriuki’s stance as well as his survival, have contributed immensely to humanising and demystifying HIV and Aids.

In the 1980s, people had scant knowledge on the scourge that affected their attitudes, behaviour and practice that contributed to a perpetuation of stigma.

Of the eight people who came together to form a support group, having tested positive, only Muriuki is alive today.

Rowland Lenya succumbed to the virus three weeks ago after being on antiretroviral therapy (ART) since 2005.

"I haven’t recovered from the demise of Lenya yet since he was one person whom I saw hope in,’" says Muriuki.

Lenya founded the Kenya Network for People Living with HIV and Aids (KENWA), which cared and supported people living with the disease.

"Lenya’s death has been low-key yet the circumstances that prevailed when he went public was that he was treated like a freedom hero for breaking the silence."

Mental State

"I was so scared. I didn’t know what to do," Muriuki recalls his initial shock after testing positive, adding that his physical and mental state remains so sound he has never missed to go to work ostensibly from being sick.

He is not yet on HIV treatment, meaning he doesn’t use ART because his CD4 count remains high at 530.

"Only those with CD4 count of below 200 are supposed to use the antiretroviral drugs," says the man who holds a Master’s degree in Public Health with a specialisation in Disaster Management and Prevention from Great Lakes University in Kisumu.

It is a big achievement because the father of three did not have even a diploma at the time he contracted HIV.

The boy that was unborn, and who tested negative for HIV, last year completed schooling at Alliance High School and hopes to pursue a course in public health, just like his father.

Muriuki’s two other sons, Jeff and Mike, have joined Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology where they are pursuing engineering degrees. Muriuki just completed a Master’s Degree in Public Health at the Great Lakes University in Kisumu.

Good nutrition

Today, Muriuki runs the pan African Non Governmental Organization, Network of African People living with HIV and Aids as its chief executive.

But what is his secret of keeping healthy? Muriuki keeps a strict diet that ensures good nutrition and boosts immune system. So, fruits and traditional vegetables and whole meal cereals make the basis of his dietary routine.

In addition he keeps fit by going to the gym and following a keen interest by jogging every morning.

"The most important drive is my positive attitude towards my reality, and living normal life without worries," adds the man who strongly believes in family values.

Muriuki’s wife has stood with him through the tough times.

"She has been so supportive and I am grateful because I don’t know what I would have done without her support," says Muriuki of Jane Ngima, his wife of 23 years.

Discordant

Muriuki adds that nearly 40 per cent of all infections within marriage are discordant, which means one partner is HIV-free.

Muriuki, who won the Guinness Stout Effort Award for Outstanding Courage in 1992, and Medal of Courage by the Italian Parliament in 1993 for his work urges a scale up of intervention on populations most at risk.

"To complete the war against Aids, groups such as men having sex with men and commercial sex workers must be reached because they constitute over 15 per cent of new infections," he advises.

And that’s the secret of survival from a man who knows it, having overcame the stigma and surviving the ridicule for 20 years, and is still looking forward to tomorrow. The regional office that Muriuki covers includues Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan both North and South, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somali, Mogadishu, Uganda, Tanzania including Zanzibar, Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya.

Although Muriuki is based in Nairobi, he divides his time between these countries.

The programme involves inter-country visits of role models of behaviour change for the exchange and sharing of experiences and information.

Since most Network of Africa People Living with Aids documents are available only in French and English, attempts are being made to translate some publications into Kiswahili and other widely spoken languages in Africa.

These materials have been produced, in partnership with United States Agency for International Development and a regional directory of African Associations of people living with HIV and Aids

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